Aug 5, 2009

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Jaja’s defiance seemed to me now like Aunty Ifeoma’s experimental purple hibiscus: rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom, a different kind of freedom from the one the crowds waving green leaves chanted at Government Square after the coup. A freedom to be, to do.
Set in Nigeria, Purple Hibiscus is the story of fifteen-year-old Kambili. She and her family live in fear of her father, a brutal and controlling man. Kambili’s father fights corruption and censorship, pays the school fees of numberless children, and helps those of his community who are in need. Yet in return he demands that they all share his strict Catholic faith, and rejects those who don’t, including his own father. And at home, he terrorizes his wife and children. After a military coup which is followed by social unrest, Kambili and her brother Jaja go to stay with their aunt. There, they discover a whole new way of living, and Kambili finally learns what her own laughter sounds like.

Reading Purple Hibiscus made me have one of those why-didn’t-you-tell-me-she-was-this-good-oh-wait-you-did-actually moments. I really need to start listening to you all sooner, because yes, Adichie is an extraordinary writer. Purple Hibiscus is wise, perceptive, subtle, and perfectly paced. It’s a story of political unrest, of gender and power, of religious fundamentalism, of faith, of freedom, of growing up, and of first love.

I loved seeing Kambili discover all the new things, all the simple facts about life that had been kept from her at her father’s house. While she’s staying with her aunt, she discovers new ways of acting, of inhabiting her own body, even. She learns new definitions of faith, of what it means to be a girl, to be young, to be alive, to laugh. She learns that it's okay to share laughter and conversation during a meal, to speak before you're spoken to. She learns what it’s like to live without fear. We see how her father’s brutality had invaded even the most hidden corners of who she was, and it’s wonderful and moving to watch her become her own person once she’s given the chance.

Kambili’s father was also quite an interesting character. He’s extremely intolerant and he’s capable of horrifying acts of violence – there are some chilling scenes of domestic violence and of child abuse. And yet he’s human, and complex, and an actual person with fears and contradiction. This makes Purple Hibiscus a much better story than it would have been had he been portrayed as a monster. In an interview at the end of my edition, Adichie says she wanted him to be complex so that he would be less easy to dismiss. I think this is an excellent point. It’s important to understand that in the real world, acts of violence of this kind are committed by real people, not by bogeymen. Understanding this would probably help us realize that they aren’t as uncommon as one might think.

I leave you with a link to this excellent video interview with Adichie, which I discovered via Claire's blog. I loved hearing what she had to say about writing and politics, about gender and power, about novels and short stories. Like the books she writes, she's very perceptive and wise.

Favourite passages:
That night, I dreamed that I was laughing, but it did not sound like my laughter, although I was not sure what my laughter sounded like. It was cackling and throaty and enthusiastic, like Aunty Ifeoma’s.

As we drove back to Enugu, I laughed loudly, above Fela’s stringent singing. I laughed because Nsukka’s untarred roads coat cars with dust in the harmattan and with sticky mud in the rainy season. Because the tarred roads spring potholes like surprise presents and the air smells of hills and history and the sunlight scatters the sand and turns it into gold dust. Because Nsukka could free something deep inside your belly that would rise up to your throat and come out as a freedom song. As laughter.

There are people, she once wrote, who think that we cannot rule ourselves because the few times we tried, we failed, as if all the others who rule themselves today got it right the first time. It is like telling a crawling baby who tried to walk, and then falls back on his buttocks, to stay there. As if the adults walking past him did not all crawl, once.
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(Did I miss yours?)

41 comments:

  1. Oh, I just love the last quote about failure. The story reminds me of A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, a book I liked but stopped reading because of exams, and forgot to complete. I really think I must finish it soon.

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  2. Ooh, I loved this book - would love to reread it.

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  3. This author has been on my radar for a long time. I'll get there eventually!!

    Lezlie

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  4. The goal is to first read Half a Yellow Sun to get an idea of what Adichie is like. After that, assuming I like it, I'll probably go to this one next. I believe Eva told me it was good, too.

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  5. Hazra: For some reason I've always paired her other book, Half of a Yellow Sun, with A Thousand Splendid Suns in my mind. But I'm not sure if there's more to it than the word "sun" :P

    Verity: I think I'll return to it myself in a few years.

    Lezlie: Took me a while too, but the good thing about books is that they wait :P

    Amanda: For some reason this one has always interested me more, but now that I know how much I like her writing I'll read her again for sure.

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  6. I came across Adichie by chance, when Purple Hibiscus was first published and have followed her career with interest and excitement. I loved Purple Hibiscus and then later Half a Yellow Sun and looking forward to some quiet time (perhaps this weekend) to settle down and read The Thing Around Your Neck.
    She has extraordinary promise as a great writer. Her writing is wonderful.
    Have you read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, that Purple Hibiscus pays homage to? I highly recommend it.

    P.S. I received my beautiful and thoughtful and wonderful bookmarks and print today! Thank you, Ana :D.

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  7. I sighed after I read the passage you quoted. This book sounds marvelous. Thanks for another great review.

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  8. This sounds like must read, also the word purple is in the title. ;)

    I think also (in addition to what you said) that it's important to portray "the bad guys" as complex and sometimes even sympathetic because it helps us realize our own capacity for such evil.

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  9. Thanks for the link back, and yes, I so agree with you. Adichie is an extraordinary writer indeed.

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  10. I loved this book and think I prefer it to Half a Yellow Sun. She is one of my favourite authors.

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  11. This sounds simply amazing. I'm wondering if it any anything like THE POISONWOOD BIBLE ... have you read that one?

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  12. Oh my, you're making me question my decisions now. I had Half a Yellow Sun sitting in my enormous pile at the bookstore yesterday. I read the first few pages and was already in love! It made it through all my weeding downs until the very last. After that lovely review, I'm wishing I'd chose this instead of one of the others. Either that or just spent more than my gift card. ;) I think I just need to go back now and buy it, along with this one!

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  13. I have to put my hands up and say I have avoided this one. I tried reading Half a Yellow Sun and just couldn't get into it and I don't understand why. I may not have been in the right frame of mind to read it as at the time I was bogged down with teaching and very stressed. So perhaps I need to go back and try again. This one does sound beautiful.

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  14. I feel that I must read this book. Your thoughts have me very intrigued by the whole story.

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  15. Have this one out from the library, which means I have only a few days left to read it...better hurry up. But it's thanks to bloggers like Eva, and claire and now you that I've even heard of this author, much less this book!

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  16. I've heard good things about this one too. Right now I'm in the middle of Half of a Yellow Sun, and the more I read the more I like it. It's definitely not a lighthearted book though.

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  17. As Heather says, Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible also has an abusive father/husband who is complex and so not entirely monstrous. That would also go for the hero of Things Fall Apart, if you ask me. This one is going on my list of books to find.

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  18. Nymeth,
    This is another book I have on my shelf but haven't yet read. I had heard so many good things about it, and bought it on a whim, but never got around to reading it. I am glad you say it's really good, and your review makes me want to go look for it now. Awesome review, glad it didn't disappoint!

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  19. This sounds amazing as well! It seems like a backwards Poisonwood Bible. My TBR pile seems to be growing infinitely lately!

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  20. I had not heard of this one, but I am going to add it to my TBR after reading your review!

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  21. Nymeth..Thanks for the quotes. I love reading passages from books that people blog about. I always have my little book log that I keep quotes from the books I read. Most of the time I write them in the back flap, but also in my reading journal.

    This book continues to intrigue me. I know I have seen it places other than on blogs and my sonar has been alerted. Your review was great and it has convinced me to get it. I'll let you know my thoughts too.

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  22. I've heard a lot of great things about this book, but just haven't got around to reading it yet.

    Those passages are great! I'm glad you enjoyed this book, Nymeth. :)

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  23. Wow this sounds fantastic - your review was powerful. I have never heard of this book before but it is going on my list to watch out for. Thanks!

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  24. I feel like when I *finally* get around to reading this one I'm going to have the same sort of moment you did.

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  25. Excellent review, Ana. I especially love the quote on laughter.

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  26. I really just skimmed your review to see if you liked this book or not :)
    I have this on my TBR and plan to read it soon. I'll back to your review though.

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  27. Sounds amazing. I too have not read any Adichie, despite the fact that everyone says it's so good. Must remedy that!

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  28. Wow. It really does sound amazing. Excellent review.

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  29. Woohoo!! Welcome to the Adichie fan club!! :D

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  30. I think I will be wondering why I didn't read her sooner too! I've been told :o)

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  31. Sigh. This is another one that I've had for ages but still haven't got around to reading. Once I finally get to it I have a feeling I'll be wondering what took me so long too.

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  32. I really need to read this author! What a wonderful review...thank you.

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  33. I really really want to read this one now. Stop adding to my wishlist, dang it! :-)

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  34. Wow! This book sounds like a must read. Onto my TBR list it goes.

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  35. Claire: You are most welcome :D I haven't read Achebe, but in the interview my edition includes she mentions what an inspiration he was, so I definitely will!

    Bermudaonion: She is such a gifted writer.

    Amy: The word "purple" is always a selling point ;) And I absolutely agree. The first step towards avoiding doing terrible things is to realize we're none of us above doing them.

    Michelle, you're welcome! She really is.

    Jackie: I can see why!

    Heather: I haven't, no. But you know, I'm almost sure I've seen the two being compared before.

    Debi: There's always next time :P I should have known I'd love Adichie: Eva does and Dewey did. And I know you will too!

    Vivienne: Sorry to hear Half of a Yellow Sun didn't work for you! But this one was actually pretty easy to get into. I hope you give it a try sometime.

    Staci: I feel that you must too :P

    ds: I hadn't heard of her before blogging either. I can't wait to hear your thoughts on this :)

    Alyce: Yeah, same with this one. Very heavy at times. It's also hopeful, though.

    Jeanne: Both The PoisonWood Bible and Things Fall Apart are now on The List!

    Zibilee: I hope it doesn't disappoint you either!

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  36. She: That happens when you blog...no way around it, I'm afraid :P

    Rebecca and Naida, hope you enjoy it!

    wisteria: I'm glad you like reading the quotes! I really do too...it gives me a good idea of what to expect from the writing. I look forward to reading your thoughts :)

    Melody: I hope you enjoy iy too when you get around to it!

    Sheila, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did :)

    J.T. Oldfield: The good thing about having those moments is that they mean we've found something great :)

    Alice: That bit really stayed with me.

    Violet: I look forward to hearing what you think!

    Rebecca: I took my time too :P But books always wait patiently!

    Beth: thank you!

    Eva: yay :D Where's my badge? :P

    Terri and Nat: hehehe...it happens to us all :P

    JoAnn: you're welcome! From what I got to know of your taste, I think you'll like her a lot.

    Kim: I'll try :P

    ibeeeg: I think it is a must read, yes!

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  37. Okay, this is the downside of having 100+ blogs on your blogroll. How did I miss this. Please tell me this is linked at Color Me Brown? :-)

    Glad you enjoyed this. She is an amazing writer.

    Paperback, I've read Things Fall Apart. I'm a Achebe fan.

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  38. Color Online, glad to hear it! I think Things Fall Apart is amazing and I have a few of his other novels still to read.

    Ana, I definitely recommend Achebe.

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  39. Glad you enjoyed this and thanks for linking to my review.

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  40. Another one for my insane TBR list! :-)

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.